“An idea about how the scenario of manual scavenging has changed in India by now can be had by giving the dimension of the problem which may be gleaned from surveys conducted from time to time about the number of persons engaged in scavenging in the country”
He is one of the most influential people in the country when it comes to sanitation. His work has not only liberated thousands of scavengers but has also reduced the practice of open defecation in the country. A great humanist and social reformer, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak is the founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement. The organization has been working under his leadership, promoting human rights, environmental sanitation, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management, and social reforms via education. He has been honoured with the Padma Bhushan – the highest civilian honour awarded to a citizen for exemplary service. He was also been awarded the Stockholm Water Prize in 2009. Since then, there have been many more award ceremonies that have recognized him and felicitated him for his work towards improving sanitation in the country and abroad. Here are excerpts from in Interview granted Water Network:
We are honoured to have you with us Dr Pathak. How did you develop an interest in sanitation?
In the year 1968 by coincidence I joined the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee as a social worker. There I read the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi as well as other books related to him which had a profound influence and effect on me. The Gandhi Centenary Committee was formed in 1967 to celebrate the birth centenary of Mahatma Gandhi which fell in the year 1969.
This Committee had taken up numerous programmes one of which was to restore the human rights and dignity of untouchables who used to clean human excreta manually carrying it as headload for disposal and who were also referred to as human scavengers.
One day, the General Secretary of the Committee asked me and said: “I would advise you to engage yourself fully to fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi – his unfinished agenda to restore the human rights and dignity of untouchable scavengers. This will be the best tribute by the Centenary Committee to Mahatma Gandhi.”
I replied: “How can I work with untouchables, because I belong to the Brahmin caste.” I then narrated an incident of my childhood days. I told him, “A lady untouchable, at that time referred to as “dom”, used to come to our house to deliver utensils made from bamboos and when she used to return my grandmother used to sprinkle water up to the area which belonged to us in order to cleanse it. People used to tell me that she was an untouchable and whoever touches her will be polluted. Being a curious child, when my grandmother was not around, I used to touch her to see whether I became polluted and was there any change of complexion of my body as a result of touching her.
One day, I touched the untouchable lady which my grandmother saw. She made a hue and cry and forced me to swallow cow dung and cow urine. Then she gave me Ganges water to drink in order to purify me. It was a trauma in my childhood which I have never forgotten to this day. So how can I work with these untouchable human scavengers.”
Secondly, I told him, “Sir, I am a sociologist by background and furthermore I am not an engineer. Unless I give an alternative to the bucket or dry toilets which are cleaned by human scavengers how can I ask people not to use these toilets.” The General Secretary heard me patiently but said “I do not know your caste or whether you are an engineer or not but by seeing your performance, your dedication as well as commitment in this short period that you have worked with us, I see light in you and strongly feel that you can fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi to bring the untouchables in the mainstream of the society on a par with others.” To this, I had no answer. I became sombre and quietly I left the place.
It was taught to us that if somebody wants to work for the cause of a community then first and foremost one has to build a rapport with the community to know in detail their attitudes, their lifestyle. For this, I went and lived with them for three months in a colony of untouchable human scavengers in Bettiah, Champaran, a small town in the State of Bihar, coincidently the same place from where Mahatma Gandhi had started his freedom movement. My father was both upset and sad. The Brahmin community turned against me and my father-in-law was very angry with me. I told him that my entire life has undergone a sea change and I have now started turning over the pages of history of India so far as untouchability is concerned. Either I will be successful or I will get lost but I cannot just sit and watch.
While I was in the colony of the untouchable I was in two minds about whether to continue or not to continue this work because of the opposition from my family and the Brahmin community and their combined concentrated rage aimed at me and my mission.
After few days I was going to Bettiah town in the afternoon to have a cup of tea with some friends from the colony. We saw that a boy wearing a red shirt was attacked by a bull. People rushed to save him but somebody from the back of the crowd shouted that the boy belonged to the untouchable colony. On hearing this everybody left him in that injured state. With the help of friends while taking him to the local hospital the boy died on the way. That day, there and then I forgot my family, my caste, my community and I took a solemn vow to fulfill the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi to rescue the untouchables from the shackles of slavery which had chained them for the past 5000 years.
What has changed for the scavengers in India? How can one eradicate this practice?
An idea about how the scenario of manual scavenging has changed in India by now can be had by giving the dimension of the problem which may be gleaned from surveys conducted from time to time about the number of persons engaged in scavenging in the country.
In the earlier censuses, no attempt was made to collect information regarding the number of scavengers engaged in manual scavenging on an all India basis. Some scanty information was, however, available in respect of some States as can be seen from the statement below:
Number of scavengers as given in earlier Censuses based on ethnographic notes
The first all-India census to collect this information was held in 1931 under J.H. Hutton, Census Commissioner, according to which the number of scavengers was 19,57,460 (male: 10,38,678 and female 9,18,782). This also covered the areas which are now in Pakistan. In 1961 census the number of sweepers and scavengers was recorded as 35.32 lakh of whom 802,400 persons (505,404 male and 297,396 female) were recorded as engaged in scavenging.
The number of sweepers and scavengers as recorded in 1971 census was 50.28 lakhs but no information was collected regarding the number of scavengers. During the subsequent censuses, information regarding a number of scavengers was not collected.
However, in July 1989, the Planning Commission constructed a Task Force for suggesting measures to abolish scavenging with particular emphasis on rehabilitation of scavengers. The Task Force estimated the number of scavengers as 4 lakhs (3.34 in urban areas and 67,220 in the rural areas) in the country in 1989.
The information regarding the number of scavengers in the country was not collected during the 2001 and 2011 censuses.
The Ministry of Welfare (now Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment) collected the number of scavengers in the country, based on a rapid survey in March 1992 by the State Govts. which was reported as 7.70 lakhs, of whom about 4.23 lakh manual scavengers and their dependents were assisted for rehabilitation during 1992 to 2005.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment under their scheme ‘Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers’ (SRMS) in 2007, identified 1.18 lakh manual scavengers, of whom 78,941 were provided financial assistance.
The Ministry undertook a survey of manual scavengers in 2013 and could identify 5141 manual scavengers in the urban areas and 7612 in rural areas – totalling 12,753.
Can you please explain the technologies developed at Sulabh?
In India though sewerage was introduced in Calcutta in 1870, by now according to Central Pollution Control Board, of 7,935 towns/cities only 929 have sewerage system and that too with partial coverage and again that too with Sewage Treatment plants in only 150 towns. The septic tank system was/and is also costly to construct, requires cleaning which is expensive and the wet sludge is taken out is health hazardous. Use of bucket toilets too requires services of scavengers. On the other hand the option of defecation in the open was and is, easily available and was/is therefore widely practiced. The situation therefore demanded a novel approach and a practical solution.
To find a suitable technology I started studying relevant literature and while doing so came across a WHO publication viz “Excreta Disposal for Rural Areas and Small Communities” by Edmund G. Wagner and J.N. Lanoix, where inter alia it is said “Suffice it to say here that, out of the heterogeneous mass of latrine designs produced over the world, the sanitary pit privy emerges as the most practical and universally applicable type.”
About the practicability of adoption of the technology in urban areas, in particular, I thought that if the technology was applicable in rural areas then there was no reason why it could not be adopted in urban areas as well, provided conditions remained similar mutatis mutandis. Being of the view that imagination and application of mind is as important as knowledge of the basics of technology itself, I made improvements and innovated the design of the pan as also the trap with water seal making use of toilet malodour proof and leading to conserving water required for flushing purpose; this was done by fixing the pan with a steep slope of 250-280 and an especially designed trap with 20mm water seal, both allowing smooth flow-out of excreta. And, above all introduced alternate use of two pits where one is used at a time and when, after the excreta fills up the first pit, it is diverted to the second pit.
In a household of 4-5 persons it takes approximately 2-3 years for a pit, a metre wide and approximately 2 metres deep, to get filled up. By the time the second pit gets filled up, excreta in the first pit dries up. The process of alternate use can continue as it is repeatable. The inner lining of the pit is done by fixing bricks in a honeycomb pattern leaving the soil in the intervening space to face the inside of the pit. This enables absorption of gases, leading to dispensing with attachment of a vent pipe, making the functioning environmental friendly too by preventing release of harmful greenhouse gases and simultaneously keeping up the temperature allowing the toilet to function in deep-winter as it did in Srinagar even when the temperature went down to minus 140 C or at Kabul where temperature went down to minus 300 C. The whole mechanism turned out to be an invention of mine of two-pit ecologically compatible compost toilet.
The pits are generally designed for 3-year desludging intervals, but if desired, they can be designed for longer periods or reducible even to two years. Its maintenance is easy, simple and costs very little; only one litre of water for flushing is required as against need, in conventional flush toilet, of 10 to 12 litres of water; needs space less than that is necessary for installation of a septic tank toilet system. It does not need scavengers for cleaning the pits or disposal of sludge, thus eliminating scavenging and after being relieved not being treated as untouchables when trained and becoming economically self-reliant. This (pit cleaning) can be done by the householder. It makes available rich fertilizer and soil conditioner; can be easily connected to sewer when introduced in the area. A low volume flushing cistern can be attached to avoid pour flushing.
Human excreta based biogas technology had remained unnoticed for long due to the fact that the available technology was not socially acceptable, as it required manual handling of human excreta. The design developed by Sulabh does not require manual handling of human excreta and there is recycling and resource recovery from the wastes. The Digester is built underground into which excreta from a public toilet flows under gravity. Inside the digester, biogas is produced due to anaerobic fermentation by the help of methanogenic bacteria. The biogas, thus produced is stored in inbuilt liquid displacement chamber. One cubic foot biogas is produced from the human excreta per person per day. Human excreta based biogas contains 65-66% methane, 32-34% carbon dioxide and, the rest is hydrogen sulphide and other gases in traces.
Biogas produced from human excreta can be and is being used for different purposes e.g. cooking, lighting, electricity generation and to warm oneself during winter. Besides, the effluent emanating from the biogas plant can be used as fertilizer, which contains a good percentage of nitrogen, potassium and phosphate.
But simultaneously its (effluent) unpleasant bad colour, odour and presence of pathogens, and high BOD content, limit its use for agricultural/horticultural purposes or for direct discharge into a water body. Since Sulabh is maintaining 8,500 public toilet complexes spread all over the country, of which 200 are linked with biogas plants, it was an important task for the organization to make the effluent free from odour, colour and most of the pathogens, to use it safely for agricultural purposes. After a series of experiments, the organization has developed a new and convenient technology by which the effluent of human excreta based biogas plant turns into a colourless, odourless and almost pathogen-free liquid manure. The technology is based on filtration of effluent by being subjected to sedimentation, then passed through sand and aeration tanks and then through activated charcoal followed by exposure under ultraviolet rays.
These processes make the effluent colourless, odourless and free from organic particles with the UV eliminating the bacteria. It reduces BOD and COD of the waste water drastically. Since such wastewater is from human wastes, its BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) which is around 200 mg/l, comes down to less than 10mg/l after treatment – safe for aquaculture, agriculture and gardening or discharge into any water body without causing pollution. It can also be used for floor cleaning.
In developing the design of the biogas plant a choice had to be made between constructing the plant with a flexible dome or a fixed dome. Experience of working flexible dome revealed that sufficient temperature does not develop because of which in winter the quantity produced of biogas decreased. Also, at times gases escaped which led to spread of foul smell. But when I tried working the plant with a fixed dome the said disadvantages stood removed. Sulabhnow therefore follows construction of plant with a fixed dome.
Based on the ‘Sulabh Model’ design, 200 biogas plants of 35 to 60 cum capacity have been constructed by Sulabh in different States of the country so far.
After touching briefly upon the decentralized system of human waste treatment, based on functioning of the biogas plant with SET technology, mentioned below are some of the advantages attached with it:-
1. The cost of collection of sewage and operation & maintenance of the system are very low.
2. No manual handling of human excreta is required.
3. It is aesthetically and socially accepted.
4. Biogas can be used for different purposes.
5. Treated effluent is safe for reuse in agriculture, gardening, or for discharge into any water body.
6. In drought-prone areas treated effluent can be used for cleaning floors of public toilets.
7. If discharged into the sewer, pollution load on STP is much lower.
Thus, the decentralized system of sewage treatment through biogas technology is more effective for minimizing financial burden to combat pollution. And, has multiple benefits – sanitation, bioenergy and manure.
The design has been approved by the Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources, Govt. of India, for its implementation through the State nodal agencies.
Are you happy with the progress of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan? What are some sanitation reforms that you propose?
I am of the view that it should be possible for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to be a great success. The reasons why I say so is that the Andolan has been initiated in the country at the highest level that is at the level of the Hon’ble Prime Minister himself. The second reason is that a target has been set within a given time framework. It should be possible to achieve the target.
The question that arises is how will finances for the purpose be found. The way out could be to involve institutions/individuals of high net worth in addition to the budgetary resource of the Government. On the basis of what has been said above a rough and ready estimate of cost involved would be as follows:-
If the cost of a toilet is taken to be Rs. 30,000 to ensure quality construction including escalation cost in three years, then the requirement of fund works out to Rs. 3,60,000 crore to accomplish this mammoth task.
In the aforementioned scenario the role that Sulabh can play needs consideration. It will be useful to remember that the target of SBM is to cover both urban and rural areas. Whereas it is not difficult to find agency/ies for construction of toilets in urban areas, the difficulty is faced when such a huge number has to be built in rural areas.
Secondly, the time frame stands reduced from 5 to now only 3½ years since the target has to be achieved by mid 2019. Thirdly, one has to think of agencies other than of the government and commercial banks where prescribed rules and regulations involve time consuming fulfillment of procedural formalities. This is and will be so even if funds will be available considering that the Government has taken the step of imposition of cess (tax) of 5%.
Another way therefore is to take the route of roping in business houses under the implementation of CSR programme.
Government fortunately has already mandated that 2% of net profit should be spent by a corporate house to discharge its social responsibility. Though, the spend can be on and for various purposes like construction of a school or a dispensary or on housing or sanitation if the target set under Swachh Bharat Mission of the Prime Minister is to be attained then the endeavor should be that most of the mandated fund amount is spent on sanitation. The usefulness of the spend will enhance manifold if it is done in areas which still stand unserved, that is as far as India is concerned it will be the rural areas from the point of view of sanitation. The amount of fund requirement will depend upon whether the area to be covered will be a village or a panchayat or a block or even a district.
All this, will though need advocacy and persuasion calling for personal involvement of top management of the business houses. I am however happy to say that Sulabh has been able to persuade some business houses and public sector undertakings to undertake construction of toilets in some rural areas to discharge their Corporate Social Responsibility. Thus, in Ludhiana, Bharti Foundation has taken up the task of covering the entire Ludhiana district with the aim of construction of toilets especially in rural areas. Some of the other prominent public sector undertakings which have come up with finance for construction of toilets by Sulabh are as follow:-
1. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC)
2. Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL)
3. Tehri Hydro Development Corporation India Limited (THDCIL)
4. Maruti Suzuki
5. Sterlite Industries Ltd.
6. Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd.
7. Cholamandalam Investment & Finance Company Ltd.
8. Odisha Power Generation Corporation (OPGC)
Your songs on the River Ganga are beautiful. How do you think it will motivate people to take action and get the river cleaned?
The reasons which have led to pollution of Ganga are as follows:-
Reduction in the volume that flows through Ganga because of melting of the glaciers primary cause of which is climate change. The government is engaged in this task and has already communicated to the world body concerned with climate change proposals linked with a reduction in carbon footprint. Moreover, there is the fact that today Ganga bears the brunt of pollution caused by increasing population living on its banks through its course. Again, the government is seized of this problem.
Thirdly there have been encroachments which are increasing with the passage of time involving human waste finding its way into the river and further increasing pollution.
Besides, some culture related factors also have led to pollution of the river. For example disposal of dead bodies in the river Ganga is considered holy and an act of piety. Here again Government have stepped in by increasing the number of electric crematoriums which gradually are gaining in popularity. There is the factor of immersion of idols after the end of the relevant. An awareness campaign has been conducted in this direction.
I thank you for appreciating the Ganga song penned by me. It was a humble effort of mine which I am sure will have its own impact in creating and enhancing awareness. Though running the risk of sounding vain-glorious, I may be permitted to say that my song is only a link in the long tradition of other well-known songs, poems and paeans having being composed and sung celebrating or descriptions written about mother-Ganga viz Ganga Lahiri or Nehru’s Will etc. etc.
For cleaning the Ganga, I believe this is an individual social responsibility. The people should not throw flowers, flowers petals, diyas, etc. inside the Ganga river who visit the ghats of the Holy Ganga.
What message would you like to deliver to the readers of Sulabh Swachh Bharat?
My message is that however big the contribution of government, NGOs and Corporate bodies may be, success in the ultimate analysis depends upon people’s participation. Therefore, let there be more power to the people.
I am also of the view that NGO, Government and the Corporate sector and other agencies if cooperate will gradually help in the success of clean Ganga mission and also Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
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